Donald Trump’s margin of victory in his presidential win came from car-producing states. Key Electoral College victories in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania – all states that Barack Obama had won in 2012 – solidified the win for a candidate who made direct appeals to manufacturing workers.
Wisconsin hadn’t selected a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. Michigan’s last Republican presidential nod came in 1988, with Pennsylvania becoming reliably Democratic in 1992. Of the Midwestern, manufacturing-heavy states that went to Trump, only Ohio had selected a Republican in the past 20 years – opting for George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004 before backing Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Clearly, Trump’s outreach to working people in the manufacturing Midwest worked. These are states where strong union membership could reliably get out the Democratic vote for years, and it’s where the Democratic candidate lost the election.
If Hillary Clinton had been counting on labor’s unified voice to win the Midwest, she and others haven’t been paying attention to recent history. For nearly a decade, union members have been showing dissatisfaction with their leadership on par with the dissatisfaction that rank-and-file Republican voters showed for their party’s leadership.
Trump flatly rejected decades of Republican policy on free trade and was embraced by millions of voters for doing so. Primary voters rejected candidates sticking to more traditional conservative principles, such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. The message was clear – the policies that the party has been promoting are not the issues that matter to the electorate.
The same is true of the relationship between UAW members and leaders. Union leaders continued to promote Democratic candidates at a time when the main concerns for members were wages and job security. The first cracks in that unity became clearly visible in 2009 when Ford workers flatly rejected a revised contract that union leaders had negotiated. Many workers said they felt they’d given enough to ensure the company’s success and criticized union leaders for asking rank-and-file members for more givebacks.
Following the General Motors and Chrysler federal bailouts in 2009, those companies’ workers agreed not to strike during 2011 contract talks. Four years later, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles workers rejected the contract that their leaders had crafted with the automaker. Ford workers nearly rejected their contract in 2015 as well.
One of the stories that picked up steam throughout the 2016 election was that working-class voters in many parts of the country felt left behind by their leaders. While much of that discussion focused on Republican voters, that sentiment had been clear in the labor movement – one of the pillars of Democratic electoral support – for many years.
Trump’s election leads to an era of uncertainty for the industry. Will President Trump stick to the aggressive fuel-economy standards promoted by Presidents Bush and Obama? Will research support and manufacturing investment tax breaks for electrical vehicles continue? Will changing trade deals force companies to move work out of Mexico and Asia?
For now, workers and automakers must wait and see.